The 1800s were not a good time for India. The mighty Mughal Empire was in decline and the British East India Company was gulping up province after province and kingdom after kingdom. Losing one and gaining another overload never was a pleasant affair and many were looking to gain their freedom and, as with many colonization efforts, identity. But hard times breed hard men, and in our case hard women. Or more precisely a well-known hero of the Indian Rebellion of 1857, Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi, the queen of the state of Jhansi. Her life was interesting, her struggles deep and her death heroic. So let’s go to the beginning, to the time well before the rebellion, to the time when a little girl was born.
Her birth name was Manikarnika Tambre. She came into this world on 19 November of 1828 to the happy parents Moropant Tambe and Bhagirathi Sapre. She had a good family and would have an easy childhood, but her mother died when she was just four years old. So she stayed close to her father, who was working as a court minister at the Bithoor district. This position provided Manikarnika with a good schooling and quite a lot of freedom. Differently from other girls of her age, not only did she read books and study sciences, she was also educated in horse riding, shooting, fencing and anything else that could add to her mischievous nature.
But every childhood, no matter how good it is, has to end. In May 1842 Manikarnika married the Maharaja of Jhansi, Raja Gangadhar Newalkar. And that was when she became Lakshmibai, the Rani of Jhansi. We are not sure if her marriage was happy, or if she was content with her new home. In 1851, she had a baby boy, but he died just four months old, leaving the Raja without an heir. Now you might think it is a cold thing to say, that a boy was just an heir, but let us explain. At that time there was a quite interesting law introduced by the British. If a king, prince or any other royal dies without an heir, his holdings automatically become property of the British East India Company. Very handy for them.
In 1853, Raja’s health was in a very bad shape and he needed to secure his throne, so he and the Rani did one thing they could, they adopted a son Damodar Rao, and proclaimed him their heir. In November of the same year Raja died. The Rani expected her son to become the new Raja, but Governor-General Lord Dalhousie thought otherwise and rejected his claim. The state of Jhansi became property of the British East India Company and the Rani and her son were retired with a small pension.
Not long after, in 1857, the Indian Rebellion broke out in Meerut. We will not dwell deep into its details, but it started by disillusioned and angry Indian soldiers and quickly spread to the surrounding areas. The Rani, who was still viewed as a figure of authority in Jhansi, was given permission to raise a small army to protect the region. Thanks to her education in warfare, she managed to gather a levy and for some time kept the city in relative safety.
What happened next is quite a disputed topic. But we can say for sure that the Star Fort of Jhansi was surrounded by a newly arrived rebel force and was given an ultimatum to surrender or die. At the end of the day, the British soldiers decided to give up the fort, as they believed they would be given a free passage. But it would not be so, as soon as they laid down their arms they were massacred together with their wives and children.
If the Rani took part in the massacre, we do not know. But it seems that she was somewhat at odds with the rebels, and after threatening her with the destruction of her castle and getting a pretty ransom for it, they left the area. The Rani wrote to the British, trying to explain what had happened, and was told to hold Jhansi until a relief army would arrive.
At that time the whole region was in bad shape. The rebellion was not your usual “us against them” affair and there were many small kingdoms that tried to do their own conquering while the British were busy. Knowing that, the Rani fortified the fort, gathered a proper fighting force, cast new artillery and made sure that nobody could take her beloved Jhansi away from her. And there were many suitors, first a self-proclaimed prince Sadashiv Ray tried to claim her throne with the help from rebels, and then two mutinied Companies tried to get her lands for themselves. All of them failed.
At the end of 1857 and the beginning of 1858, Jhansi did not see any further conflict. The rebels stayed away, and so did the British East India Company. And as self-rule settled, so did the desire for independence. But this peaceful state would not last forever, as finally, in March of 1858, the British had arrived. They did it with their usual pomp. They did not thank the Rani for her help, for keeping the city safe and sound, for building up defences and keeping rebels at bay. They simply rolled over with an army and demanded the surrender of her domain.
This time the Rani did not welcome her masters, but refused to give up what was rightfully hers. And so on 23 of March the city was besieged and the bombardment had begun. Thanks to the Rani’s effort, the defenders had enough guns to give a proper answer and to keep the British at bay.
A relief force under command of the Rani’s friend, Tatya Tope, tried to lift the siege of Jhansi, but failed to push the British East India Company army back. Even though the rebels had numbers, the British had experience and weaponry. And so the siege continued.
But the attackers knew they had to take the city sooner rather than later, or more rebels would arrive and they would have to fight on multiple fronts. On 2 April, the British forces assaulted the walls and managed to break through. The fighting spilled into the streets, and went all the way up to the palace. The defenders fought bravely, contesting every inch of their beloved Jhansi, but they could not hold for too long.
The Rani had to abandon the city, to continue the fight she had to flee. She tied her son to her back, jumped on her favourite steed and rode out surrounded by her trusty guards. She broke through the attackers and managed to escape their enraged grasp.
From that point on all the Rani could do was fight. She joined rebel forces at the town of Kalpi and tried to hold on to it, but once again got pushed back by the advancing British forces. Her next battle was at Gwalior. She tried to organize local resistance to defend the city, but ultimately failed.
On 16 June, the British East India Company armies attacked Gwalior and on 17 June, after intense fighting, the Rani found her death. There are many legends on how she died. Some say she was fighting Hussars, others says she was charging her foes on a horseback with her son tied to her back and with a sword in each hand. What ever happened we can be sure she died a brave death, a worthy death.
And that is where the story of the Rani of Jhansi ends. Her body was never found. They say it was taken by the rebels and then cremated, to keep it out of greedy British hands. Her deeds and heroics went down in history, loved by the defenders and hated by the attackers. Her tomb can be found in the Phool Bagh area of Gwalior, her statues all over India, and memories of her in many hearts.
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